OPINION11 August 2011

Riots and research: asking awkward questions

As England breathes a sigh of relief following a night of relative calm, social researchers can begin to dissect the riots that have shaken the country’s towns and cities in the last few days.

As England breathes a sigh of relief following a night of relative calm, social researchers can begin to dissect the riots that have shaken the country’s towns and cities in the last few days.

There’s plenty for researchers to get their teeth into. Who? Why? Why now? Why here? And how do we stop it happening again?

But based on some of the comments we’ve heard from pundits and politicians in recent days, social researchers have reason to be concerned about whether such questions will be welcomed.

Prime Minister David Cameron described the riots as “criminality pure and simple”, while Home Secretary Theresa May labelled them “sheer criminality”. The only explanation Cameron offers is a “lack of responsibility” – anything more nuanced than that would start to sound too much like an excuse.

“When politicians want to sound tough, there’s no room for explanations – they sound much too much like excuses”

In a saddening exchange between Labour’s Harriet Harman and Conservative education secretary Michael Gove on the BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday, Harman suggested there might be a link between the riots and government policy. Instead of just telling her she was wrong, Gove accused Harman of not condemning the violence clearly enough.

We seem to be seeing the emergence of a new variation on Godwin’s Law: the longer a discussion goes on, the probability of one party accusing the other of not condemning the violence strongly enough approaches 100%.

The government aren’t the only ones who feel this is not a time for questions. Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie appeared on the same programme, and when asked whether we should try to understand the rioters, his answer was no.

These anti-explainers clearly believe they are tapping into a public mood. But why, in a time like this, does the prevailing mood encourage us not to ask questions? Why does an attempt to understand crime have to be a sign of weakness?

In a blog post published on Monday, the Guardian’s Dave Hill examined this disdain for attempts to diagnose events. “Condemnation on its own is far too easy,” writes Hill. “The other problem with condemnation unadorned is that it’s a dead end. You condemn. Then what? You have to look for some solutions.”

Ben Page of Ipsos Mori has not, we are relieved to say, given up trying to make sense of events. In an interview for Reuters yesterday, Page said it’s “too soon to say” that the riots are linked to the current government’s spending cuts. “It’s a much more deep-seated problem plus a spark that set it off,” he said.

Page, who was a historian before he was a pollster, looks back as far as the 1960s and 1980s for the roots of this week’s unrest, arguing that economic and social liberalism have resulted in “a sort of ‘sod you’ mentality”, and a sense among some people at the bottom of the pile that they have nothing to lose.

He points to the widening gulf (in terms of wealth and in terms of interaction) between people at the top and bottom of society – not as a result of recent events or of the actions of any particular government, but as a longer-term trend. He also highlighted Ipsos polling suggesting that the need for parents to take more responsibility for their kids is “one of the few things everybody in this country agrees on”.

Page doesn’t claim to have all the answers – he’s very clear that these things will take time to understand properly. But at least he’s thinking about it.

So far the riots have had the effect of reinforcing what we all already believed about the world. Everyone, from the most authoritarian of right-wingers to the most bleeding-hearted of liberals, feels a sense of ‘I told you so.’ Without proper study of what really went wrong, this sort of polarisation is unlikely to result in a helpful debate.

If this kind of crime really was “pure and simple”, we would have worked out how to stop it ages ago. Unfortunately it’s complicated and messy. That’s why we have social researchers: to ask questions and seek explanations. The events of the last few days make their work much more important – not less.

1 Comment

9 years ago

A very thoughtful article, Robert. Many thanks for making us stop and think.

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